I recently represented a family for the death of their husband and father due to a truck that was overweight and had no brakes. When I think about overloaded trucks, I am also struck by a case that I handled a few years ago in which gasoline tankers were routinely permitted to leave the fuel-up area with weights in excess of 80,000 pounds.
Commercial trucks are limited to carrying 20,000 pounds per axle or 34,000 pounds per tandem axle, and are not to weigh greater than 80,000 pounds total. However, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ) rules and regulations allow individual states to set weight and size limit provisions for commercial trucks that exceed the limits the FMSCA puts forth. States are also responsible for enforcing those provisions and the overwhelming nature of that task combined with some outright negligence leads to ineffective enforcement and conditions that contribute to the number of truck accidents on our highways.
In order to meet demanding delivery schedules and to increase profits, trucking companies and truckers routinely load vehicles with cargo that far exceeds the weight limits allowed by law. Overloading places enormous stress on a big rig. The engine must work harder, brakes are taxed beyond their limit and can fail, suspension systems can be compromised, and tires are more likely to experience blowouts. Overloading leaves a truck unable to maneuver properly, especially when turning or stopping, and larger loads are more likely to shift in transit, often resulting in an overturned truck.
Enforcement of weight limits falls to states. You’ve probably seen the weigh stations along the highway – some at random intervals, others at state lines. In a perfect world, all commercial vehicles travelling on our roads would be weighed and inspected at these stations, and trucks found to be in violation of any safety laws, such as trucks with malfunctioning brakes or overloaded trucks, would be taken off the road until the violation was corrected. But that is not what happens.
A report by International Road Dynamics, Inc. studying the impact of overloaded commercial trucks on highway infrastructure stated that “overweight trucks pose a safety hazard to the travelling public” and went on to discuss the inability or failure of highway agencies to enforce weight and size laws governing commercial trucks. The report describes methods of weigh station avoidance commonly employed by truckers. Some truck operators avoid the stations by using an alternative route, sometimes driving up to 160 miles out of their way to avoid a weigh station when they know that they are in violation. Truckers in Virginia and Idaho were observed avoiding weigh stations by “running” or “plugging” the stations – purposely driving in large convoys of trucks in order to exceed the ramp capacity of the station. Drivers who knew their trucks to be in violation of weight limits would drive at the rear of the convoys so that when they arrived at the weigh station it would already be filled and temporarily closed allowing them to speed past. The study states that, “over 38% of the vehicles that were running by the station as a result of these convoys were shown to be overloaded.” It goes on to note that, “as many as 70% of overloaded trucks also were in violation of motor carrier safety and driver regulations.” Overloaded trucks were found to be three times as likely to be in violation of safety regulations compared to general truck traffic.
And even when weigh stations or random roadside inspections catch violators, the result is often nothing more than a ticket or the issuance of an overweight truck permit. In some cases logbooks are even forged.
Of course, overweight trucks are extremely dangerous. Tire blowouts, poor maneuverability, overturning, and brake failure are just a few of the hazards caused by negligent or deliberate overloading. Public safety depends upon the enforcement of existing laws and perhaps the enactment of new laws. But as long as trucking companies, loaders, drivers and the government agencies charged with enforcing regulations continue to allow these trucks on the road, they must be held responsible for the results of their actions.
In my work as a truck accident lawyer, I make sure to always find weight receipts and look at a truck company’s weight records.